Big data. Data journalism. Dark data. Judging by the buzzwords, it seems like data is the hot new thing. It’s not. 2,500 years ago Socrates advocated the use of gathering data and testing assumptions, creating the germ of the idea that eventually grew into the scientific method. In the 16th century, Francis Bacon argued for the necessity of studying the world empirically. The first clinical trial (testing methods to prevent scurvy) was conducted over 200 years ago. Data isn’t new, it’s been changing the world for a long time.
Think about Galileo. With nothing more than a telescope, feather and ink, he began to make sense of the mysteries of the universe. Long before spreadsheets entered the scene, Florence Nightingale used medical statistics and cutting-edge data-visualization techniques to prove the need for change in sanitation in military hospitals. These people tend to be absent from our conversations about data, but leaving their story untold is a mistake.
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Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Alan Turing - they knew something about data that is still relevant to us today. They knew that data alone won’t change the world. Data gets world-changing results when creative, curious people know how to use it to accomplish amazing things. We have access to more data, computing power and analytical tools than these data heroes of the past could dream of, but we still face some of the same challenges that they did.
If you’re interested in joining the ranks of "people who get world-changing results with data," here’s what you need to know.
Data can help you find the answer, but it’s up to you to ask interesting questions.
Picasso famously said about computers, "But they are useless. They can only give you answers." The same can be said about data. Data can give you answers, but you still have to ask good questions. Take George Washington Carver as an example. Agriculture had already been practiced for 10,000 years, but Carver saw conventional wisdom as something to be improved upon, not settled for. Carver wanted to revive the health and livelihoods of farmers impoverished by nutrient-stripped soil. Before he discovered all the wonder of the peanut, he had to devise experimental research into a bunch of alternative crops.
To make another, more nerd-friendly metaphor, the answer to life, the universe, and everything might be 42 - but what’s the question?
Data or no data, sometimes you’ll still get things wrong. And that’s OK.
Using data doesn’t mean you will always be right. More often than not, you’ll probably end up proving yourself wrong time and again. That’s OK. You don’t have to know the answer upfront if you want to achieve world-changing results with data, you just need to know how to keep testing and exploring until you find it.
You can only analyze the data you have. Be strategic about what to gather and how to store it.
There’s a tendency for people to think they need perfect data that covers every attribute from every corner of the company with flawless quality. This can lead to a lot of headaches and little action. Success is driven by focus, not perfection. Start with the end in mind, and focus on collecting and analyzing the data that will drive action.
There is an approach that leads to the right answer: It’s called the scientific method.
In the mid-18th century, when the navies of colonial powers were sailing across the globe, scurvy was a hot topic. Sailors couldn’t conquer the seas while immobilized when they were so sick that their teeth were falling out - someone needed to cure the problem. James Lind was the first to apply a scientific approach to the solution. His rudimentary A/B test wasn’t perfect, but it represented a leap in human understanding of how to use data to find the right answer (Vitamin C in citrus). There is a method to the data madness, and it’s worth learning how to use it.
Data can be used to lead or mislead. The difference is in the rigorous application of statistics.
Science and mysticism have had a strange relationship throughout history. Alchemy, chronology and numerology cloak themselves in the jargon of science, and it can be easy to get confused. Even Isaac Newton got lost, wasting years of his life studying alchemy.
The application of statistics to data allows you to separate science from pseudoscience. It’s the difference between making informed decisions that get results and being led astray by a misunderstanding of how data works.
All the processing power in the world is useless if you don’t know how to use it.
Our ability to store and process data is enormous and continues to grow quickly, but having this raw power and using it effectively are two very different things. People who have used data to change the world have possessed an intimate knowledge of their tools.
Here’s the catch. Using data is hard. It takes more time, more skills and a different way of thinking. It also takes courage. You need to ask new questions, refuse to settle for the status quo, and pursue the truth no matter where it leads.
It’s also worth it. When people think critically and test their assumptions, they get better results. So while data may not be the newest, hottest thing, it is a timeless classic, and one that keeps getting better with age.